The recent appearance of Russian military hardware in Syria has made Moscow’s assertive new presence in the country’s civil war clear; less certain is why Russia is making that move now, more than four years into the conflict.
With no end in sight to the fighting, analysts say that Moscow appears to be hedging its bets, hoping to retain its influence with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while jockeying for a stronger bargaining position in lengthy peace negotiations.
“It seems that Russia is determined to protect its interests in Syria and is preparing for all possible scenarios in that arena,” said an analysis released on Thursday by Zvi Magen and Sarah Fainberg, researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank based in Israel. “These include defense of the Assad regime, even if it is forced to retreat to the coastline; promotion of a compromise that would end the fighting; and, if possible, recruitment of broad regional support for these moves, also for the sake of containing the threat the Islamic State [also known as ISIL] poses to Russia.”
Russia has backed the Assad government since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, not only through military support but, more vitally, through diplomatic cover at the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto as a permanent member.
Moscow’s on-the-ground role has increased significantly in the past weeks, with reports on Wednesday suggesting that, for the first time, Russian combat forces have joined the fight, alongside Assad’s forces.
Moscow tried to play down the reports, saying its forces were merely advisers in Syria, but Russian officials acknowledged on Thursday that it is delivering military equipment to the country. U.S. officials have expressed concern about the escalation of the Russian presence, saying it could exacerbate violence in Syria.
Some analysts say Russia’s moves should come as no surprise.
“Moscow’s ‘master plan’ is to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime, and its recent decision to step up military support to Damascus should not have come as a surprise,” Nikolay Kozhanov, a fellow at Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank, wrote in an analysis published on Thursday. “Russia is unlikely to deviate from its strategy of supporting Assad in the foreseeable future.”
But Assad’s recent admissions of battlefield “fatigue” in the face of advances by Syrian rebels groups, including Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) and ISIL, has Moscow worried.
“The authorities in Moscow appear to believe that by helping Assad they are protecting Russia’s national interests, particularly in combating jihadi fighters,” said Kozhanov. “In August 2014, [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov called ISIS ‘the primary threat’ to Russia in the region.”
Containing ISIL may be the only shared goal for Russia and the United States, which recently entered bilateral discussions on Syria. The two countries’ opposing views on Assad, whom the U.S. previously called on to step aside, have been a major impediment to finding a political solution to the conflict. Two seasoned U.N. diplomats resigned their posts, in 2012 and in 2014, citing a lack of progress in U.N.-sponsored peace talks. But with European countries as well as regional players increasingly worried about ISIL’s growing strength, the talks seem to have gathered some momentum in recent months.
Unnamed Western diplomats who spoke to Reuters on Thursday said Russia’s actions could be seen as a way to ensure that any negotiated end to the conflict is favorable to Russian interests.
"It's all about the General Assembly," said one of the diplomats, referring to the United Nations annual meeting later this month in New York City, where Russia and the U.S. are expected to discuss Syrian peace efforts. Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the General Assembly, in his first visit to the U.S. in eight years.
Still, the U.S. and Russia are not the only major powers with a stake in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran have sponsored competing rebel factions fighting Assad for control of Syria, and Russia may be concerned about their influence. “Russia has chosen to respond by reinforcing its forces to defend the Assad regime and its control of the Syrian coastline,” said Magen and Fainberg.
Staffan de Mistura, the diplomat in charge of the beleaguered U.N. Syrian peace process, said on Thursday that U.N. peace talks, including U.S.-Russian diplomacy, have failed to overcome differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The talks between the U.S. and Russia are a positive sign, he said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal. But, he added, “What I am not hearing — and what we need to hear … is a frank discussion between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
For now, Russia's increased military role in Syria appears to be a case of keeping its options open. Speaking in Moscow on Thursday, Lavrov said his country was not considering "any additional steps" in Syria but hinted that more actions could nonetheless be taken. "If it's necessary, we will act in full conformity with the Russian legislation, international law and our obligations, exclusively on the request and consent of the government of Syria and other countries of the region, if there is a talk about helping them fight terrorism."
With reporting by wire services